April 01, 2000

The Japanese American Incarceration: The Journey to Redress - Human Rights Magazine, Spring 2000

The Japanese American Incarceration: The Journey to Redress

By John Tateishi and William Yoshino

On February 19, 1942, two months after Japan's attack at Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which set into motion a series of events that led to one of our country's most tragic constitutional failures. Executive Order 9066 gave broad authority to the military to secure the borders of the United States and to create military zones from which individuals, citizens, and aliens alike, could be removed. Although the executive order was carefully crafted so that specific groups of people were not singled out, the ultimate implementation of the order resulted in the removal and imprisonment of virtually the entire Japanese American population residing on the West Coast of the United States. While the executive order in itself was constitutionally sound, the troubling fact is that the intent of the order was to exclude Japanese Americans from the Western states. The attack at Pearl Harbor effectively achieved for the racists and exclusionists in California what they had failed to accomplish in over fifty years-to rid the state of its Japanese American population.

The Wrong

Following the attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, agents of the FBI swept through Japanese American communities in California, Oregon, and Washington, apprehending leaders who had been identified as potential threats to the security of the West Coast. Those arrested were leaders of community organizations, churches, language schools, and editors of Japanese vernacular newspapers. They were sent to U.S. Department of Justice detention centers and detained for the duration of the war, despite never having been accused of any crime or acts of treason.

Under the authority of Executive Order 9066, the Western Defense Command declared the western portion of the three West Coast states military zones and in April 1942, the military imposed a curfew and travel restrictions on Japanese Americans. Singled out by race alone, Japanese Americans became the victims of racial policies that stripped them of their rights as American citizens. Soon after the curfew, the military posted notices in all Japanese American communities, ordering all Japanese aliens and "nonaliens" (i.e., citizens) to report to assembly areas, and to bring with them only what they could carry. It was what the government euphemistically referred to as an "evacuation" to "relocation centers."

So in the spring of 1942, under the watchful eye of the police and the military, Japanese Americans began boarding buses and trains for the forced journey to government detention camps. Without regard for due process or basic constitutional guarantees, over 120,000 persons of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned by the United States government in ten camps located in remote, desolate areas in California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, and Arkansas. Approximately 10,000 people were imprisoned in each camp surrounded by barbed wire and armed military guards. The treatment of Japanese Americans during World War II was one of the most serious violations of constitutional rights in the history of this country. The president signed the executive order with a clear intent to single out Japanese Americans; the Congress supported the president's actions and gave statutory authority to the order; and the Supreme Court upheld the government's actions in three test cases that sanctioned the forced exclusion and imprisonment of a group of citizens based solely on race. (See Hirabayashi v. U.S., 320 U.S. 81 (1943); Yasui v. U.S., 320 U.S. 81 (1943); and Korematsu v. U.S., 323 U.S. 214 (1944).)

The Remedy

Thirty years after the closing of the camps, Japanese Americans set out to rectify the injustices committed against them during World War II. In 1978, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) launched a campaign for redress calling for restitution in the amount of $25,000 per internee, an apology by Congress acknowledging the wrong, and funds to establish an educational trust fund.

The fundamental strategy of the campaign focused on the loss of individual freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution and enumerated in the Bill of Rights. With a population that was only one-half of 1 percent of the total population of the country, it was clear that Japanese Americans alone could not win this campaign. The strategy, therefore, was to wage a far-reaching campaign utilizing the media to educate the public about the World War II incarceration and to build coalitions of groups willing to support the legislative effort.

Within six months, articles about the Japanese American internment found their way into the major newspapers, and network television aired stories locally and nationally. In the midst of this media campaign, the JACL made a critical decision to forgo appropriations legislation at the outset in favor of legislation to establish a blue ribbon federal commission to investigate the facts and circumstances surrounding the exclusion and incarceration of Japanese Americans. While not a popular decision among Japanese Americans generally, it proved to be critical. Although Japanese Americans knew well the extent to which they had suffered and been denied their rights, the American public and members of Congress knew little, if anything, about the internment.

Strategically, the JACL formed coalitions with civil rights groups and others to seek passage of legislation that would create a federal commission to examine the government's actions in 1942. In 1980, a year after the legislation was introduced in Congress, and exactly two years after launching the redress campaign, the JACL and the Japanese American community celebrated the successful passage of a bill to create the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (CWRIC). The president and Congress appointed a nine-member panel that included Arthur Goldberg, Father Robert Drinan, and former senator Edward Brooke. A year later, the first of eight CWRIC hearings was held in Washington, D.C., followed by hearings in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Boston, and a final hearing in the nation's capitol. In December 1982, the Commission issued its findings to Congress and the president. Titled "Personal Justice Denied," the report concluded that Japanese Americans were unjustly forced from their homes and incarcerated, and the underlying causes of this action were racial prejudice and a failure of political leadership. Six months later, in June 1983, the CWRIC recommended as remedies an apology by Congress and the president, monetary compensation of $20,000 to each surviving victim of the government's 1942 orders, and the creation of an educational trust fund.

Taking the language of the Commission's recommendations, the Japanese American members of Congress, Daniel Inouye, Spark Matsunaga, Norman Mineta, and Robert Matsui drafted legislation seeking $1.2 billion to provide for the individual compensation and the trust fund. This bold move was supported in a broad grassroots campaign by the Japanese American community throughout the country. The JACL, with 110 chapters and a membership of 32,000, was joined by others in the Japanese American community to persuade individual members of Congress to support the redress legislation.

The first appropriations bill was introduced in 1983; however, it wasn't until 1987 that the way was cleared for Congress to finally act on the measure. The opponents of the redress legislation felt it was inappropriate to punish the mistakes of a previous generation. They also felt that $20,000 was an arbitrary figure and that in light of the federal deficit, appropriating $1.2 billion would be fiscally irresponsible.

As efforts were under way in Congress, there was also a critical struggle taking place in the federal courts to reverse the Supreme Court decisions in the Hirabayashi, Yasui, and Korematsu cases. Filed as a Writ of Error Coram Nobis, three separate legal teams sought the reversal of the landmark cases that upheld the government's race-based actions. Invoking this legal device, the coram nobis teams successfully challenged the government when, in 1983, the federal court vacated Fred Korematsu's wartime conviction, followed in the next three years with the vacation of Minoru Yasui's conviction in 1985 and Gordon Hirabayashi's in 1986.

Having nullified congressional objection to redress legislation on the grounds that the government's actions were upheld as legal by the U.S. Supreme Court, proponents of the legislation intensified their efforts to seek passage of the redress legislation in Congress. In a 243-141 vote in September 1987, the House of Representatives approved the redress legislation. The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a similar measure in April 1988 and on August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill authorizing redress payments for Japanese Americans.

The skill and influence of the Japanese American members of Congress had much to do with the success of this legislative campaign. The success of this effort is also attributable to the persistence and national lobbying campaign organized by the JACL. In the end, however, redress was won because Congress was convinced that this country has a moral obligation to correct constitutional abuses.

Not all of the issues related to the government's actions in 1942 were resolved with the passage of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, however. In 1998, the JACL joined with other community groups in supporting the case of Mochizuki v. United States, 43 Fed. Cl. 97 (1999), which sought redress for the Japanese who were forcibly brought to the United States from Latin American countries during the war in exchange for U.S. citizens caught in Japanese-controlled war zones. Over 2,200 Japanese Latin Americans were deported from thirteen Latin American countries only to be incarcerated in the U.S., with the cooperation of the U.S. State Department. During their imprisonment, primarily at Crystal City, Texas, over 800 were exchanged but only 100 were ultimately returned to their countries of origin in Latin America. A final settlement was reached, which provided $5,000 per surviving victim plus an apology from Congress and the president.

As a final item of unfinished business, the JACL recently embarked on an effort to preserve the ten World War II internment campsites. Through a White House initiative as part of the administration's 2001 budget, the ten sites will each be given landmark status and placed under government ownership.

Should the initiative pass, places like Manzanar, Tule Lake, Heart Mountain, Topaz, Amache, Jerome, and Rohwer will forever stand as reminders that this nation failed in its most sacred duty to protect its citizens against prejudice, greed, and political expediency. But they will also stand as reminders that a great democracy willing to acknowledge and correct past injustices stands as a beacon of hope to all people throughout the world.

John Tateishi is the National Director of the Japanese American Citizens League.

William Yoshino is the Midwest Director of the Japanese American Citizens League.